Archive for December, 2011

19
Dec
11

Moving House

I’m currently in the process of moving house, and given the time of year there will be no content for this week. I’ll be busy until pretty close to the new year. So I’ll wish you all a merry Christmas or whatever holiday it is you celebrate at this time of year, and I’ll be back in the new year.

11
Dec
11

VGA Planets for DOS

Race main screen

Race main screen

In the early to late 90’s my older brother used to buy shareware magazines with disks attached. Because of where we lived and being kids didn’t really have the cash to buy commercial games, we used to rely on the shareware disks for having new games to play. One such game was VGA planets, a play by email game for DOS released in 1991. It is one of the first four X games to become successful and is even still played today despite it’s age. My brothers and I didn’t have access to BBS or the internet at the time so we had to play amongst ourselves, and like most of the shareware games we could not get the registered version (until we grew up at least anyway). We played for quite a while under a number of scenarios, but never really finished many games or had many battles because of the length of time required to play a full game in the shareware version.

The Game Play

Ship Screen

Ship Screen

The game is quite simple to play but very difficult to master. So much so that there are many websites and guides dedicated to various strategies and economics involved in running a successful empire. You control three different types of entities in the game, star ships, planets and starbases. Star ships are how you project power across the cluster, you can ship materials, fight other vessels, take over planets and perform many other types of missions. Planets are the economic power house of your empire, providing raw materials and money to build and supply star ships. The starbases are for building and maintaining star ships, they also add extra defense to a planet in the case of a star ship attacking. In the early stages of a game it is pretty easy to perform all the necessary tasks to build and expand you empire. As your empire grows it becomes more difficult to manage, and much more time consuming. This is mostly because of the effort it takes to manage a larger number of planets, the economy of each one needs to be managed closely to get the most out of them. Star ships are not as hard to manage in numbers, but like planets each one needs your attention to make sure they are supplied and carrying out appropriate missions. Star bases require the least management in my experience, the main decisions related to the bases involve how much technology you plan on investing in, how much you wish to invest in defense, and how much to invest in building and supplying ships.

Shareware V’s Registered

Starbase Screen

Starbase Screen

The shareware version of VGA planets has some limitations as compared to the registered version. The main one being that you cannot upgrade your technology to the highest level. This radically changes how the game is played. In the shareware edition you are very limited in what components can be put into star ships and what star ships can be built. The slower engines mean your empire cannot grow as large as fast, it is more difficult to hide, shipping takes a lot longer, and the dynamics of how combat is achieved is different. The lesser weapons mean that ships you can build are less effective in combat, and the limit on ship types you can build means it is much more difficult to take out enemy colonies. You can get around these limitations to a degree if you are lucky enough to have a starbase where natives will boost your technology to the maximum for you. This does mean there is a bit of a element of luck involved in what kinds of ships and weapons you can use, and the worlds with natives become even more valuable than otherwise. The registered version plays as a much faster game, your ships can move faster if you can afford the engines, and you can build your larger warships without having to go to as much effort. The elements it changes the most are the types of ships in your fleets, and the worlds that are considered valuable are different. Natives are still an important part of what makes a planet valuable, but materials are important as they are need to build larger ships. All the online games between human players are using the registered version as far as I know, so if you intend to play online you’ll want to get the registered version.

The Client

Torpedo Construction

Torpedo Construction

The DOS client is pleasing graphically, but lacks functions that allow you to automate common tasks such as building factories on planets. It can become tedious quite quickly as you have to perform every single task manually, this can be quite time consuming. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as often performing the tasks manually yields a better result. The downside of the DOS client is that it doesn’t provide as much information as other clients do. This means you either need to find a better client or additional tools to make the DOS client competitive. Fortunately there are other clients available that do a better job such as the windows version called winplan, and the fan written planets control centre.

Artificial Intelligence

Fighter Construction

Fighter Construction

This is something that is missing from the game, but has been written as an add-on by various people. The best registered AI player that I know of is Spacelord. There are a few others, very few of which support playing as the shareware player. This has prompted me to write my own AI called Romulus. My main aim is to make a player for shareware players to practise against until they are ready to play the registered version with human players. This is proving to be a difficult task. I’ve implemented many features so far, including rudimentary diplomacy which none of the other AI’s provide. Romulus is still very much in the experimental stages however, and can be beaten easily by a competent human player.

Links

Here are some useful websites that you may need if you intend to be a good planets player.

Donovan’s VGA Planets site is useful for strategy guides and find information to guide your strategy.

VGA Planets Calculator is useful for predicting whats going to happen using formula from the game.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

03
Dec
11

Silent Service II on DOS

Title and loading screen

Title and loading screen

Silent Service II is another of the games we got in the microprose simulation pack. The game is focused on the war in the pacific as a submarine commander in the United States navy. You can choose a short single battle, a war patrol or a full war career. I don’t know how historically accurate the game is but it certainly is fun. We normally played the full war career as this gave you the fullest experience of being the captain of a submarine. You have to plan your patrol, how much fuel you need, when you need to resupply or repair, and where you think the best hunting will be.

A War Patrol

Selecting the submarine

Selecting the submarine

I set the simulation to use flawless torpedoes because the historical ones are painful when you go to so much effort to hit a battleship. I chose a gato class submarine as it has the best load out available at the start of the war. I got command of the USS Blue Fish and departed for the southern Japan patrol zone. During transit on the large map screen, you’re given notifications of what is happening in the war. They come in the form of text with a small image describing the event. This would have been similar to what submariners would have actually gotten in the way of news.

USS Bluefish

USS Bluefish

I had my sub travel around the coast near southern Japan and I lucked out and got a large target first up. I end up within about 3000 yards of a group of destroyers cruisers and a super battleship. Jackpot! Being so close I move slowly and try to get in front of the ships I want to target and let loose 3 torpedoes towards the battle ship and 2 others toward a heavy cruiser. The torpedoes pass close by a destroyer which is alerted and heads straight towards me, in doing so however it strikes the second and third torpedoes and sinks.

Patrol map screen

Patrol map screen

My remaining fish hit the battle ship and the heavy cruiser escapes damage, but by now the destroyers are nearly on top of me. So I dive and try to hide. I can see on the sonar that the battle ship has slowed down, but not stopped. I move towards it and on my way am hit by a couple of depth charges, damaging one of my engines. Thats only going to make it more difficult to strike the now damaged battle ship.

Navigation screen

Navigation screen

I launched debris to throw the destroyers off the path, and they begin to circle around a larger area. This gives me the chance to come back to periscope depth to finish of the battle ship with my aft tubes. The destroyers having spotted my scope make chase, but by then it’s too late the battle ship is sunk and I make my escape.

View from the periscope

View from the periscope

The next target I find is a transport that is on it’s own. I surface to take it out with the subs 5 inch gun to conserve torpedoes. The gun battle is relatively quick and the ship goes down. I find another large target in what was shaping up to be a fantastic patrol. Again I end up just within 3000 yards in front of the convoy.

Gauges

Gauges

Looking through the scope I saw another super battle ship and a normal battle ship. Jackpot again! The convoy is at the corner of a larger zig-zag maneuver, so I have to quickly try and decide which way I need to go to stay in front of the convoy. I manage to get close but again a destroyer gets between me and the larger battle ship. So I decide to send 5 torpedoes it’s way and quickly swing around to send 3 torpedoes from the aft tubes towards the other battle ship.

Damaged Battleship

Damaged Battleship

The torpedoes all seem to find their mark. The destroyer goes down and the battleships being relatively close had no chance to get away from the torpedoes. I had already dived deeper and set myself up for an escape as the torpedoes sunk both battle ships. I get hit by a few depth charges but fortunately escaped with minor damage.

Escape

Escape

I realise that I will start running low on fuel and torpedoes if I don’t start to head back to Pearl Harbour. On the way I run into a small convoy of transports lead by a solitary destroyer in the dead of the night. I sink the destroyer with a couple of torpedoes from the periscope. To conserve ammunition I surface to take out the remaining ships with gunfire. During the ensuing gun battle I take several shell hits destroying my periscope.

The gun sights

The gun sights

This is a bit of a disaster as a periscope is essential to take on larger convoys. Fortunately being night time I’m not hit too often and I prevail sinking 3 transports and a tanker. I decide to continue my journey back to port for repairs, but run into another medium target. I figure I should check it out. It turns out to be what I thought was only two freighters and a patrol boat. The patrol boats are pretty pathetic so you can often sink them with your gun. I start to fire on the patrol boat not realising that there was also a destroyer in the group which was circling around to my stern. Before I can react it rams me and I get sunk! That obviously ended my war patrol!

Graphics and Sound

Freighter on fire.

Freighter on fire.

The graphics in the game do the job quite well, but they aren’t really realistic when it comes to the view through the periscope. For the machines of the time, it was pretty good. The sound does a good job of giving you the sense of being in a sub. The engines rumble and the enemy destroyers send out sonar pings that you can hear. The gunshots are the only let down, but given the game supports Adlib and PC speaker this isn’t a surprise.

Conclusion

Dead

Dead

Silent Service II kept me and my brothers busy for a long time. Each time you play you get a new experience. Luck does have a big part to play in what targets you get, but only planning and a bit of seat of your pants cunning will get you the big targets and help you escape when you are being chased by 6 destroyers. The game succeeds in immersing you in the world of submarine warfare. Your decisions have a real impact on how successful you are, and whether you and your crew make it home. If you’re not careful it is common to get sunk, even by relatively small groups of ships like freighters. You never feel like you were cheated by the game, usually there is something you could have done to escape. At the end of a career or war patrol, you feel like you’ve achieved something, the score you get is a secondary thing, and only serves to rank players in the hall of fame. In conclusion this game has stood the test of time for me.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.




Blogs I Follow

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Mister G Kids

A daily comic about real stuff little kids say in school. By Matt GajdoĊĦ

Random Battles: my life long level grind

completing every RPG, ever.

Gough's Tech Zone

Reversing the mindless enslavement of humans by technology.

Retrocosm's Vintage Computing, Tech & Scale RC Blog

Random mutterings on retro computing, old technology, some new, plus radio controlled scale modelling.

ancientelectronics

retro computing and gaming plus a little more

Retrocomputing with 90's SPARC

21st-Century computing, the hard way

lazygamereviews

MS-DOS game reviews, retro ramblings and more...